September 21, 2008
Responding to Neo-Atheism
Neo-atheism has had a very successful publishing run over the past several years, with best-selling books by Christopher Hitchens ("god is not great"), Sam Harris ("Letter to a Christian Nation") and Richard Dawkins ("The God Delusion"), among others. But this year there has been an equally impressive counter-phenomenon. Three recent books, written from three widely divergent perspectives, have responded to the arguments of neo-atheism with both intellectual force and literary grace.
In April, David Berlinski, a secular Jew and well-known skeptic of Darwinism, who holds a Ph. D. in Philosophy from Princeton and has written widely on mathematics and science, published "The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions." The book defends religion by attacking atheism's attempt to enlist science in its cause.
The book is written with Mr. Berlinski's characteristic literary verve. To a Nobel Prize scientist's argument -- offered at a conference on "science, religion and reason" -- that "for good people to do evil things, [it] takes religion," Berlinski responds: "Just who has imposed on the suffering human race poison gas, barbed wire, high explosives, experiments in eugenics, the formula for Zyklon B, heavy artillery, pseudo-scientific justifications for mass murder, cluster bombs, attack submarines, napalm, intercontinental ballistic missiles, military space platforms, and nuclear weapons?"
"If memory serves," he writes, "it was not the Vatican."
Last month, Michael Novak, a Catholic scholar who holds the Jewett Chair in Religion, Philosophy and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute, published "No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers." Mr. Novak believes the country needs a respectful dialogue between believers and unbelievers, and he has effectively produced one in book-length form, setting forth the arguments of the neo-atheists with extraordinary respect and civility before presenting his own views.
He has written a humble book, all the more powerful for its humility. Even at age 74, after a lifetime of religious study and writing, he acknowledges he cannot be certain that what he believes is true. But he has set forth a case for religion that is all the more compelling for its serious treatment of the other side.
This month, Rabbi David J. Wolpe, named earlier this year by Newsweek at age 49 as the number one pulpit rabbi in America, published "Why Faith Matters." It is a book in a class by itself, because it combines both intellectual force and lawyer-like accumulation of historical, statistical and other evidence with something equally compelling -- the power of personal example.
Wolpe is the senior rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and teaches modern Jewish religious thought at UCLA, but he was -- at an important stage in his life -- an ardent atheist. He grew up in a rabbinical family, initially rebelled against a religious future and, influenced by the works of Bertrand Russell, fell into atheism during his college years. He eventually rejected Russell's views decided to try rabbinical school -- "on spec," as he told his friends. One of his brothers predicted it would be "a phase."
His new book is his seventh he has written during the phase. His first book, "The Healer of Shattered Hearts," was a lyrical summary of rabbinic Judaism that established him, in Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's words, as "the poet of Jewish theology." His mother's stroke at age 52 led him to write "In Speech and Silence," a book-length meditation on words and song in religion. His most remarkable volume, "Making Loss Matter," described a way of capturing meaning from the most painful moments of life. It was written in the midst of the cancer that struck his wife at age 31, preventing her from bearing further children.
In a column in 2003, Rabbi Wolpe wrote about the Talmud's insistence that we "bless God for the bad as well as the good" -- and later that year lived out that teaching. He collapsed during a speech at the University of Pennsylvania, with what was shortly diagnosed as a brain tumor requiring surgery. The tumor was benign, but three years later he learned he had a new malady: lymphoma. He underwent extensive chemotherapy, losing his hair and strength but continuing to give weekly sermons at Sinai Temple throughout. Some of the lessons he learned from those experiences are at the heart of his book.
The faith reflected in his book is thus hard won, arriving after a long journey from atheism, through adversity, to an understanding that gives his book the earned eloquence that comes from a book not simply written but lived. He covers an extraordinarily large array of issues in just 198 pages of text: whether faith is simply projected onto a meaningless world; whether science answers the questions religion once addressed; whether history demonstrates that religion is responsible for numerous wars; whether people would be happier without it; whether evolution can explain self-consciousness; whether evil can be understood; and numerous other issues.
Ultimately he believes that life is at its heart not a puzzle to be solved but a mystery to be appreciated. The legendary Jewish educator, Shlomo Bardin, was once asked whether he believed God in fact existed. Mr. Bardin's response was "I don't know; I only know that when I see a sunset, I want to say a Psalm." It was an acknowledgement of the limits of human intelligence, the evidence before our eyes, and the power of religious ritual.
Rabbi Wolpe's book continues that theme, effectively conveying that religion is the reasonable response to the wonder we see around us, and to the knowledge that many things -- starting with love -- are things we cannot see. He takes Shlomo Bardin's poetic observation one step further, concluding that "what represents God in this world is neither the sky nor the sanctuary, but the human face" - something Wolpe demonstrates with groups by simply asking them to look into each others' eyes. Perhaps the most eloquent page of his book is his five-word inscription to his wife and child: "All the proof I need."
All three of these books exhibit a quality that is largely missing from the volumes by the neo-atheists: a sense that there is wisdom in all points of view, and that wisdom is not exclusively found in one. It is ironic that what ultimately makes neo-atheism not only unconvincing but off-putting is the fact that it often exhibits the very fundamentalism it purports to find in religion: an absolute certainty in its views, an uncritical worship of its god -- science -- as a saving force, and a denigration of those who refuse to be saved. Berlinski, Novak and Wolpe, in their divergent ways, demonstrate that a religious outlook that does not deny doubt, values humility, and appreciates the implications of the miracle of our existence, is the more reasonable approach to life.
Rick Richman edits Jewish Current Issues.